• Real & Rising Risks
  • Accessibility, Information & Coordination
  • Expansive & Integrative Approach
  • Appropriate Intervention & Innovation
  • Cultural Intelligence & Adaptation

  1. Real & Rising Risks

Southeast Asia (SEA) is amongst the world’s most vulnerable regions to natural disasters.  Hydrometeorological and geological hazards have occurred with increasing frequency and greater intensity with less predictability.  Within the last two decades, SEA nations suffered inter alia the Asian tsunami (2004) that devastated Aceh and Phuket; super cyclone Nargis (2008) that crippled Myanmar; super typhoons Morakot and Ketsana (2009), Bopha (2012), Haiyan (2013), Goni (2020) that took turns to swipe the Philippines; the Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami that smashed Palu (2018) and the tsunami that struck the Sunda Strait caused by the Anak Krakatau’s (2018) eruptions and collapse; Mount Merapi eruptions and consequent destructive cold lava flow (2010), and the recurring widespread flooding throughout SEA notably in 2011, with Thailand being the worst-hit.  Landslides have emerged as the other major and menacing cause of deaths and destruction.

Hundreds of thousands of deaths, tens of millions affected and displaced, with trillions of dollars in economic loss and infrastructure damage over the last twenty years.  And the worst has yet to come.

Warmer ocean waters will feed more energy to future typhoons, which would create more forceful winds and gusts.  In tandem, warmer global temperatures allow for greater retention of water vapour in the atmosphere which means more precipitation being dumped along typhoon tracks.  This would lead to more and severe flash floods.  The increasing occurrences of earthquakes and seismic movements would further loosen topsoil, risking destructive landslides when typhoons or monsoons strike.  Additionally, rising sea levels due to the melting Arctic, would prevent flood waters from higher plains to escape through riverways into the sea.  This in turn would inundate lower lands – destroying homes, farmlands and infrastructures including bridges, roads and power stations.  Rising sea levels would also result in saltwater intrusion into riverways which destroys freshwater aquaculture and agriculture.  This would be a brutal blow to livelihoods and food sources. 

The atmospheric phenomenon, La Niña, which results in the cooling of sea surface temperature in the oceans would cause the warmer waters to accelerate the formation of typhoons.  Super typhoons could highly likely be a norm in due course. 

Along with hydrometeorological and geological risks, the SEA neighborhood has been grappling with dengue and malaria endemics, plus the Covid-19 pandemic (likely endemic), as the region braces itself for the much-anticipated Disease X, to contend with.

2. Accessibility, Information & Coordination

In any emergency, timeliness of intervention is key to effective relief – saving lives, stabilising the situation and preventing deterioration of the crisis.

Three key challenges confront responders of major disasters – accessing severely and widely affected areas, retrieving data from affected grounds and overall coordination of the relief operations.

Securing early access to affected areas and stranded communities allows for timely intervention.  More often, bad weather, rural terrains, water bodies, strewn debris, damaged roads and broken bridges are the obstacles.

Moreover, access to affected areas provides for crucial ground information for responders, coordinators and stakeholders.  This is critical to determining what, how much and who are required at the affected locale.  Needs vary at various affected areas.  In major disasters such as the tsunami in Aceh, super typhoons in Philippines and Myanmar, and the mega earthquakes of Muzaffarabad, Wenchuan and Gorkha, the devastated areas are usually widespread geographically, slowing the flow of information and speed of response. 

Ground information is key to ensuring that appropriate aid is deployed to avoid inaccurate and wasteful mobilisation of resources.  With access and information, coordination of relief resources is critical to maintaining the efficiency of resource allocation and effectiveness of intervention.

3. Expansive & Integrative Approach

Mounting menaces warrant multifaceted measures and mechanisms.  As resources are not unlimited, it is critical that master-planning and coordinating teams possess relevant and real experience, sound ground and cultural intelligence, practicable solutioning and pragmatic adaptability.

There needs to be continuous and constructive cross-sector exchanges, exercises and alliances amongst the public (government agencies and INGOs), private (corporations) and people (NGOs and communities) sectors.  The public sector could improve further with greater wisdom, inspiration and  innovation in its master-planning, public advocacy, engagement and empowerment.  The private sector is more than mere automated teller machines (ATMs).  While funding is important, corporations possess assets inter alia landing crafts (LCT); small rotary-wing crafts, amphibious fixed-wing crafts; jet skis: info-comm technology, potable water treatment systems, etc. which are appropriate and most useful for access and acute relief intervention.

In the people sector, community-based response networks and mechanisms need to be enhanced and expanded.  It would be constructive to include faith-based institutions and faith leaders.  Religion is an avenue and beacon for inspiration and consolation, and it influences the characterisation of pain, compassion, patience and sanctity of human life, which are useful virtues towards risk-mitigation, disaster-preparedness, crisis-response and community-resilience.  Faith leaders can rally and steer their flocks in natural emergencies in terms of early warning (via church bells, mosque drums, temple gongs, tele-messages, etc), swift evacuation and, calm and considerate communal living at evacuation centres.  Philanthropic institutions could align and ally to create funding for upskilling and equipping of humanitarian responders and help catalyse a central pool of standby funds and supplies for immediate activation during acute relief interventions.

Another key consideration is how civilian resources can be mobilised efficiently and effectively alongside military assets.  Interoperability between the two different structures and systems needs to be organised and synchronised to optimise their respective comparative advantage, without co-opting them while accommodating their different values.  This warrants constant exchanges and engagements between the two spheres.  Generally, humanitarian relief is a civilian affairs.  While the Oslo Guidelines provides that military assets should only be used as a “last resort” unless the military offers “unique capability and availability”, however, in reality, until civilian capacity is significantly enhanced, the military shall remain significant.

Disaster management – response, preparedness and risk mitigation, must be addressed concurrently with Climate Change Adaptation strategies, policies and programmes.  Integrative stakeholders’ approach requires incorporating practical adaptation and effective advocacy for operative cross-sector cooperation.  This must however be accompanied by clear prevention plans and robust crisis management structure and systems set by national, provincial and district strategists.

At the regional level, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had established the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre) in 2011 to facilitate the cooperation and coordination among ASEAN Member States, the United Nations and international organisations for disaster management and emergency response in the SEA region. 

4. Appropriate Intervention & Innovation

Since resources are not unlimited, it is imperative to communicate, consolidate, collaborate and coordinate amongst the humanitarian community.

After many major disasters in the region, to address hydration and hygiene issues, bottled waters still seemed to be the convenient and curious prescription at recent responses, even for hydrometeorological disasters.  Airlifting them is costly and limited in quantity; subsequent land-transferring them poses an onerous logistical task – heavy trucks are usually at risk of being stranded due to broken bridges or small access routes due to strewn debris.  Here, lightweight portable water treatment systems would be a better deployment option.  Most worryingly, the mountainous leftover of plastic wastes is comparable to rescuing current victims but concurrently wrecking coming generations.

Linked to provision of safe water is the distribution of storage containers.  20-litre hard-case storage carriers require massive trucking and the fully filled ones are heavy for the elderly, young and female recipients to handle.  In such cases, 10-litre collapsible and durable alternatives are more efficient for transporting to affected areas and more suitable for receiving beneficiaries.

Where there is food shortage, rice, being the region’s food staple, is enthusiastically distributed but without clean water supply, utensils, crockeries and cutleries.  In addressing infants’ hunger and malnutrition, formula milk is often earnestly supplied without clean water supply and feeding bottles.  During the usually chaotic and intense acute relief phase where the priority of relief intervention is to save lives and stabilise the situation, one consideration is to explore options to avoid the massive logistics of onsite food preparations, waste management and possible contamination.   

Humanitarian responders should purchase and dispatch only those relief items which are unavailable at neighbouring or nearby unaffected areas, unless prices have been severely inflated there.  Humanitarian strategists, planners and drivers must have the acumen to innovate and capitalise on appropriate technologies.  Additionally, there needs to be a reliable supply chain, incorporating stockpiling and pre-positioning of appropriate essential and critical relief items.

5. Cultural Intelligence & Adaptation

Different societies and communities have differing histories, laws, systems, customs, cultures, creeds and conceptions of life.  Cultural intelligence is key to catalyse and cultivate ground connection, confidence and collaboration.  Common sense is not common, especially in uncommon situations such as major crises. 

In early 2002, a few months after the war in Afghanistan commenced, containers of clothes arrived comprising printed tee-shirts and jeans, which was ‘Fright Night’ fashion to the Afghans.

After Aceh was smashed and shattered by the tsunami, energy bars, shortbread cookies and oat meals were distributed to the Acehnese when their obvious staple was rice and instant noodles. 

In the aftermaths of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka (2009) and Sindh floods in Pakistan (2010), powdered milk was contributed by international donors to help ease hunger and malnutrition, without realising about 80% of South Asians are lactose intolerant.

Some of these relief supplies were either barter-traded or re-directed elsewhere, but mostly were discarded and wasted.  It is therefore essential that relief agencies understand and adapt to local culture, beliefs, attire, palate, nutritional requirements, social behaviours and motivations of the targeted communities.

6. Conclusion

Natural disasters are not merely extreme events caused solely by forces of nature, but manifestations of unresolved developmental issues.  Hazards become disasters in the absence or shortage of risk reduction plans and mechanisms.  Unfortunately, the impacts of natural disasters fall disproportionately on developing communities.  They usually reside at less favorable geographical areas or regions which bear greater risks.  The poorer they are, the more vulnerable they become.  Hence, many of them head for the cities in search of opportunities and better life but ending up as jobless informal settlers there.  This causes severe strain on the cities’ infrastructures and social dynamics and safety.  Developing the rural regions could catalyse reverse migrations which would benefit the overall social system and economy.

Finally, while many SEA nations continue to invest and strive towards mitigating risks and enhancing their response capacities to counter the effects and impacts of global warming, the potential brunt that they stand to bear from future hydrometeorological hazards, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, is an affront and injustice to them, given that they are the least significant contributors to this global problem.  

* The article is based on the author’s humanitarian relief engagements & ground observations from 2001 – 2020 across 26 countries & territories in Asia, while spearheading three Singaporean humanitarian organisations.  From 2008–2013, he completed a policy review with the SIPRI on effectiveness of foreign military assets in natural disasters and headed various original analyses for UN-endorsed publications including UNIDRC, WHO, UNESCO, UNISDR and UNDESA on sustainable development and disaster management.

Hassan Ahmad, Special Advisor (Humanitarian), Humanity Matters, Singapore
July 2021